Chris Bowen’s startup agenda

James Riley
Editorial Director

As Immigration Minister in 2012, Chris Bowen was the architect of the Significant Investor Visa program that is bringing cashed-up business people to Australia. Now, as the Shadow Treasurer, Bowen is talking up the need for a new class of entrepreneur visa.

Bowen used a speech at the Queensland Press Club on Friday to stake out some of the policy turf where Labor thinks it can make its mark. The speech contained a lot of talk about innovation and education, of science and research, of entrepreneurialism, risk-taking, startups and venture capital.

What the Shadow Treasurer did not talk about was broadband, or the NBN Company. Not a single mention, which is fascinating . So the NBN/broadband policy caravan has clearly moved on, and the signature policy of the Rudd-Gillard years seems literally have been left now for others to sort out.

But on innovation, Bowen hit all the high-notes. And not a bad speech either – you can read it here – even if it did lean somewhat heavily on the fantasy predictions of the PwC startup report prepared for Google Australia when it established StartupAus (That is, that startups will employ more than half a million Australians in 20 years. Err, no. They wont.).

Still, this was a heartening speech. Outside of the all-care-no-responsibility hyperbole, it contained two good ideas that Labor is working on: entrepreneur visas and crowdsourced funding.

“We have been developing an alternative approach to startups and venture capital, for example as part of our suite of measures to foster innovation and entrepreneurialism. The potential here is huge,” Bowen said.

“It underlines my point that in the post-mining boom age, we need to be embracing innovation to create jobs. The payoffs for our economy of relatively small government investment of money are, potentially very substantial.”

The shadow parliamentary secretary Ed Husic has been appointed to work out a legislative and regulatory framework that would enable crowdsourced funding on a large scale in Australia. I suspect the current government will beat Labor to it, but there is certainly no harm in having senior Opposition figures pushing the issue.

The more interesting proposal is for an entrepreneur class of visa, to bring Australian in line with other markets that are competing for the best minds in business. This is Bowen’s second shot  at this. When the Significant Investor Visa (SIV) program began under his watch in late 2012, it had a focus on attracting not just capital, but the brains behind the capital.

Although it is early days, anecdotally it seems that  in practice the scheme has not quite worked out that way.As it stands, the scheme is all about the money, rather than the people.

The SIV program lets potential immigrants who can invest $5 million in Australia access to a special visa class with less onerous language and residency requirements. The visa provides provides a pathway to permanent residency and citizenship.

In practice, this “golden ticket” visa seems to have become a parachute for rich Chinese who don’t plan to make a life in Australia, but who want the option just in case.

The entrepreneur visa, Bowen says, would remedy this.

“In office, we introduced a ‘Significant Investors Visa’ designed to make it easier to attract individuals with access to significant capital,” Bowen told the Queensland Press Club. “A similar model is applicable to attracting those who may not have capital, but have ideas and drive.”

The UK and Singapore have had competitive entrepreneur visas schemes in place that are showing good promise (Ironically, Singapore quietly shuttered its own “golden ticket” scheme recently, instead focusing on brains and drive.)

Through the Bowen set-piece speech last week, Labor has ratcheted up the rhetoric on a broad swathe of innovation issues.

Bill Shorten had already made clear that he wants to make science and education his cornerstone policy areas. Shorten has taken Shadow Science responsibilities on himself, (despite this government not having a science minister to shadow).

And now Bowen has taken up innovation issues related to tax and immigration. Which is all good.

Now it would be helpful if the opposition could now find a credible shadow industry minister to help shape the agenda, because Kim Carr has proved over time while in government that he is simply not up to it.

Of course, none of this really matters. No-one particularly cares what opposition’s say, especially not at this stage of the election cycle. But it is welcome nonetheless that the most senior opposition ranks are scoping new innovation policy.

So now we wait for the release on the government’s Industry Investment and Competitiveness Agenda next month.

Because we know that government has been considering at least some of these issues. Certainly the government’s thinking on crowd-sourced funding is well advanced, and the Competitiveness Agenda seems the logical place to announce a roadmap that would get there.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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